“It’s a beautiful night and no mistake. You would never think there was a war somewhere”
In a Literary World Cup, my money would be on Ireland. I read a sarky review of one of Sebastian Barry’s novels in the New Yorker saying his prose was verbose. Coming from an American that seemed a bit rich, but I have also come to think of it as an underhand compliment. Barry is not American and America would prefer to own the best writing. Tough, USA, you lose on penalties.
There are a few mooring ropes back to Sligo that will be familiar to readers of Secret Scriptures – the cafe Cairo, Strandhill, the tailoring for the lunatic asylum – all of which help to keep this high flying kite on the ground. (This is Jack McNulty’s story and there is also the Whereabouts of Eanas McNulty which I have not read as yet, so in effect this is part of a trilogy around the three brothers). If Scriptures was a drum and bass combo, this is a different affair, a flute if you like, a one level love mystery story, told with lilt and the same writing of things down at the end of a life as in Scriptures. The accent is in the vernacular which gives humour, a joy in the telling, a setting up of the preposterous everyday woven with impending doom…of teasing out of some kind of unseen morality.
From the opening pages, page 3 in fact, we know immediately we are into dramatic uncharted territory and in the company of someone with an uncommon skill with words. “The only illuminations were the merry lights of the ship….the land ahead was favoured only by darkness, a confident brush-stroke of rich, black ink”.
That black ink reappears later like a chorus imagery.
This is also, for me, the perfect size of a book at 268 and a few pages for prelims, 9×5 with plenty of white space, say 250 words a page, thick cream paper, the kind you might write on with a fountain pen, plus chapter breaks, not too daunting or serious but sufficiently enticing and what one might say proper space for the telling of a story without reverting to any verbosity at all, room for treasure in its trove.
The setting is as much Ghana as Ireland, it is the ’20s, WW2, and the ’50s, not an embedded Irish story but one of a post old Ireland era, an Irishman abroad, we have or are moving on. There remain fondly detailed descriptions of pre-WW2 life including a magnificent account of the organ rising up in the Picture House in Sligo on hydraulic lifts (irony, irony originally designed for Zeppelins) which runs to one sentence of more than 250 words and is worth the price of admission alone. To return to the world cup analogy for a moment, this, on page 51, the start of chapter six, is a moment of descriptive triumph, the game changes, and the literary goal is scored. Pick that one out of the back of your net Captain America.
In a way this reminds me of John Williams’ Stoner but is much more topical, has more brio, and far more beautiful language. Where Stoner is languid, the Gentleman is dandy. Like Stoner, Jack is a man of a certain time, a military engineer who struggles with and to express his relationship with the beautiful Mai and recounts his life as if in despatches jumping from one crisis to the next, and equally one bottle to the next as “the buveur of Sligo” while she is “murdering her friends at tennis“.
War brings with it Ireland’s ambivalence and Barry keeps picking off little vignettes even through a most knowledgeable, irony irony here again, explanation of Jack’s bomb disposal duties. “There was a chivalry in the fact that only an officer would defuse a bomb…” from which the book takes its title. But Barry and Jack do all this without fuss or fanfare and the narrative grammar is slipped in with the quiet efficiency of the stiletto.
Jack’s inability to articulate anything beyond his hopeless love and admiration of Mia is mirrored by her although she is obviously superbly articulate in other company. So for him she morphs into a metaphor for Ireland. Ostensibly it is a book about a relationship, the relationship is really with the muddled family politics of mother Ireland which allows all kinds of issues to flow through even race itself. What is or was Irishness, what is mother even. Because Jack takes all the guilt and shame on himself we can as readers see that maybe he protests too much. Maybe it is not all his fault. But this is not a sentimental maudlin read by any means, more of a romp.
As good as Secret Scriptures? On a par.
Barry has the tricks of the great story teller up his sleeve and carefully chooses when to use them. (which is hardly something you would say about Stoner – 2-0 to Ireland)
BTW: There is an interesting interview with Barry here